A master of many genres

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Published:
02 Jun 2017
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"I had opened the door into the unexpected by stepping out of my comfort zone, and an entire realm of possibilities had opened up to me," says Upendra Subba

Often equipped with a trove of self-deprecating jokes, Upendra Subba has no problem with criticism. ‘Nobody’s perfect’ might as well be his main maxim in life. Heralded as a poet, songwriter and screenwriter, Subba has led a career marked by several triumphs, including the award-winning book, Lato Pahad, and the blockbuster Kabaddi. “Trying out new things is always worth it in the end,” shares Subba with Alok Thapa of VMAG. He says there’s nothing more exciting in life than discovering a gift you didn’t know you had—just like he did with writing songs and short stories and eventually scripts for blockbuster movies.

Tell us about your childhood.
Panchthar, the village I grew up in, was a very remote place while I was growing up. You had to walk two days to just reach a bus stop. My parents were not educated, and I was lucky to have been born a boy because that was the only reason I got to attend the village school. My older sisters didn’t get that opportunity, so when I was mature enough, I made sure my younger sisters didn’t go through the same discrimination. We didn’t grow up in luxury, but my childhood was, nevertheless, a fulfilling phase of my life. I guess it had to do with living a simple village life where you tend to have realistic expectations of yourself.

Were you always into reading and writing?
For many of us in our community, education was the way out of household chores; going to school was like getting a nine-to-five break from the daily grind. Textbooks were the last thing on my mind. I grew up in a Limbu community where we spoke our own dialect, and kids from different communities wouldn’t necessarily mingle with each other.

Nepali was limited just to school; I could barely speak Nepali, let alone write the language.

How did you start writing?
When I was attending college in Ilam, it occurred to me that writing could be an effective tool for self-expression and communication. It was there that I met other poetry enthusiasts of my age; and the way they arranged words, that too in Nepali, amazed me. Growing up the way I did, in a community where Nepali was a second language, I always regarded Nepali to be a language exclusive to Aryan society. So when I saw young teenagers from Magar, Rai, and Tamang backgrounds writing poems, using Nepali words, that bedazzled me.

Do you remember the moment when you first realised that you could be a writer?
When poems penned by Til Bikram Nembang, also known as Bairangi Kaila, who hailed from a village next to ours, started making the rounds, it inspired me immensely. After completing my bachelors, I returned to my village,and it was there that I started writing songs in Nepali. The indigenous tunes of Palam (Limbu songs) were suddenly not enough to profess my feelings to people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. So my foray into writing—which eventually led me to writing screenplays—started with writing songs.

And when did you decide to move to Kathmandu?
For me, writing poetry, or lyrics, is about paying attention to life and its various textures, and being receptive to the myriad emotions that it induces. I was a simple village boy, so my affinity towards poetry might have been regarded by some as a pretentious self-indulgence, but I felt it was a powerful mode of self-expression. I had written quite a number of songs, and as luck would have it, one of my friends liked my work and offered to help me produce an album. So, in 1997, I took a leap of faith and moved to Kathmandu to pursue my songwriting ambitions. My first album was composed by Shantiram Rai, and the set had singers like Deep Shrestha, Robin Sharma and Ananda Karki. Later, the album went on to win third place for best lyrics at a competition hosted by Radio Nepal. After that, one thing led to another, and here I am.

"My affinity towards poetry might have been regarded by some as a pretentious self-indulgence, but I felt it was a powerful mode of self-expression"

Describe the moment when you heard your song recorded for the first time.
The first time I heard Deep Shrestha’s voice singing my words, “Jeewan akhir ke nai hora...” on the radio, I was blown away—it felt surreal. For a person who didn’t have an identity, it was like manna from heaven. I had opened the door into the unexpected by stepping out of my comfort zone, and an entire realm of possibilities had opened up to me. I wouldn’t have been in the position I am in today had it not been for my songs.

The path to success is littered with adversities. How did you overcome the obstacles on your way?
How you tackle challenges depends on how you perceive success. If you associate a person’s success with their happiness, then I believe I have been successful in life. Also, we live in a society where people are very helpful. I’ve always been lucky with the little work that I have done, and I have never had to wonder about where my next meal would come from. As unambitious as this might sound, I’d say, expectations are resentments in the making. I learned to moderate my expectations regarding aims that were impossible to achieve.

So are you saying that you have attained the elusive ‘contentment’ in life?
I took a hiatus from writing, basically everything, for nearly a decade. I don’t know why but something just snuffed my will to write. The realisation that life is not something that is just to be lived hit me square in the face. Think about it, there’s more to life than blindly following your primal instincts, popular beliefs, or time-honoured customs. Without the contemplation, self-examination and open-minded wondering that I underwent for almost 10 years, I don’t think I would have been ready to acknowledge the new phase in my life. I met Rambabu Gurung (the director), who wanted a break in films. He needed someone to write, we did Kabaddi (followed by the sequel - Kabbaddi Kabaddi) and the rest is history.

Tell us about your book Lato Pahad.
Some of the short stories I wrote got published in various newspapers, and my friends encouraged me to continue writing. Short stories can be a wonderful creative exercise for exploring a new idea. Lato Pahad is basically a collection of my experiences that grew into stories. It basically tells the lives of people in remote areas. I never expected it to win the Padmashree Award (2015), nor did I think that one of the stories would be turned into a play. And this is where I would like to credit my senior, Rajan Mukarung, who paved the path for me, and helped make Lato Pahad possible.

You have penned award-winning songs, a book and blockbuster movies. Is there anything else you want to do?
Yes, I want to get into film direction. There are stories that I want to tell. As they say, the most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film for yourself, and I have yet to see a movie where my script hasn’t gone through facelifts (and some have resulted in disastrous outcomes)—this lack of creative control is one of my biggest gripes.

But you must be proud of how Kabaddi turned out.
Believe it or not, Kabaddi was originally a story revolving around the Thakali ritual of Khimi gha(reliquary stone structure), which is prepared as an offering to ancestors. It’s a sacred place where all Thakalis come to pay their respects to their deceased.

However, you’re not allowed that rite of passage if you have married out of your caste. Originally, Kabaddi was a story about a woman who marries a Chettri man, and how her son’s aim is to take her to the Khimi ghar. Of course, that’s not how the story panned out on the silver screen. We did the necessary tinkering and the movie did tremendously well at the box office, and bagged national awards. I don’t have any regrets whatsoever about changing the plot line; however, the original story is still embedded in my heart.

And then there was the lukewarm reception of Purano Dunga; what went wrong?
We all are guilty for this one; I’ll start with myself. I think the lack of quality of the screenplay resulted in some of the less favourable reviews. Also, I feel Rambabu was under pressure, and we couldn’t give enough time to develop the story. Lesson learnt—some scripts that look brilliant on paper do not translate well on film.

Can screenwriting be taught?
Most of our best writers are self-taught. Screenwriting is a combination of craft and art; the former can be taught: how to visualise and come up with scenes. However, it all boils down to the individuality of the writer; his or her uniqueness should come into play. You also need to be aware of your limitations.

What tips would you give to aspiring writers?
I don’t have any insights about how to write a successful screenplay—I only know how to tell stories, and that’s a completely different thing. Whatever you write, don’t ever sit there grinning like a cat that got a bowl of cream. Writing is a process that begins after you narrate your story to your friends. Listen to feedback and never take criticism seriously. In the end, writing is all about re-writing.